The Heart of the Matter – Chopin’s heart at the Church of the Holy Cross, Warsaw. And his final Mazurka…

‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’. These words, from St Matthew’s gospel, are the words on the pillar of  the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw where Chopin’s heart is interred. A single red rose lay at the foot of the pillar on the day of our visit.

Unlike our visit to Chopin’s grave in Paris some years ago, we managed to escape the crowds for a few minutes’ peace in this beautiful church.

Smuggled into Warsaw by his sister Ludwicka after Chopin’s death in 1849,  and preserved in a wax-sealed jar of cognac, Chopin’s heart remains a symbol of Polish identity, a precious, revered relic from one of Poland’s greatest sons.  It was removed from the Church during the WWII Warsaw Uprising and given to the Auxiliary Bishop in Warsaw.

The photograph (right) shows its ceremonial return to the church in October 1945. But, as the 1945 photograph below shows, there wasn’t much of the church left to which it could be returned.





Happily, the church is now fully restored.

Legend says that Chopin’s final work was composed on his death-bed in Paris. My teacher, Ronald Smith, researched the piece –  Mazurka Op 68 No 4 – reconstructing it from the manuscript. Ronald published his own edition, performed it many times, and recorded it for EMI, writing in an accompanying note:

”Fontana published the Mazurka in F Minor in an incomplete form in 1855 and his claim that the work was written on the composer’s death-bed and that the master was too ill to try it out at the keyboard is almost certainly without foundation. The notable Chopin scholar, Arthur Hedley, discovered the original manuscript in private possession in France in 1951. He made an on-the-spot reconstruction of a previously missing second episode in F major and several performances were given in this version. Subsequently the manuscript passed to Poland, resulting in a scholarly publication of the entire piece in 1965  which also prints a facsimile of the manuscript. Both Hedley’s 32-bar version of the F major section and this Polish edition’s 16 bars contain serious errors – though quite different ones. At first glance Chopin’s manuscript discloses little more than a riot of alterations often cramped into any available space, their continuity only indicated by a series of spidery pointers.
Scrutiny confirms that this is no mere sketch but a complete work from which Chopin was probably too ill to make a fair copy. The Polish edition, which goes a long way to reveal formerly hidden subtleties in the outer section, takes a disastrous short-cut in the F major episode. Hedley’s version is correct in its overall shape, but simplifications of harmony and register suggest that he was obliged to complete his reconstruction from memory. The version that appears ….[below]… is based exclusively on Chopin’s manuscript, the evidence having been painstakingly sifted in the light of Chopin’s other compositions.”

And here is a live 1995 recording  by Ronald Smith –

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Chopin the Organist

You can’t get away from Chopin in Warsaw. There’s no escape – from the moment you set foot in the Arrivals Hall of Warsaw Chopin Airport to walking the streets of the Old Town where there are Chopin benches (push the button for a quick blast of some music), and many advertisements for Chopin recitals here, there, and everywhere. Nor would a pianist wish to escape. Chopin is the reason why we are here.

So where to start? We began almost by accident, entering the first Baroque style church encountered on a walk near the Old Town. The Church of the Nuns of the Visitation escaped the devastation suffered by much of the city in WWII. Why is it significant? Because it was here that the fifteen year old Chopin played the organ each Sunday while a pupil at the Warsaw Lyceum.

It’s easy to forget that Chopin was an organist as well as a pianist. When he and George Sand were forced to move to the abandoned monastery in Valdemossa on the island of Majorca during the winter of 1838-1839, they expected to find an organ in the chapel; but no. The Carthusian monks are a silent order. The beautiful chorale-like section in the central part of Scherzo No 3, composed in the monastery where a Pleyel piano eventually was transported, is perhaps a moment of wishful thinking.


After leaving the island, very ill,  Chopin convalesced in Barcelona; moving on to Marseilles, he played an arrangement of a Schubert lied on the organ at the funeral of the operatic tenor Adolphe Nourrit.

Think, too, of the bass line of Chopin’s famous ‘Funeral March’, played on the organ of La Madeleine in Paris at his own funeral. In the piano version, the LH intones a solemn B flat, D flat, B flat, D flat etc. Now imagine that transcribed for organ, played by feet on the pedalboard. Left foot on B flat, right foot on D flat, left, right, left, right …. and the posssibility of a physically inspired origin of this grim march becomes apparent.

Chopin’s love of fellow organist Bach’s music is well documented. A copy of the Preludes and Fugues for Clavier travelled with Chopin to Majorca. Chopin’s musical instruction at the Warsaw Conservatory included hours of lessons each week in counterpoint. The polyphonic episode in the 4th Ballade shows Chopin’s mastery of the technique.

Below – Chopin’s Funeral March, played on the organ.



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Down and out in Warsaw and Vienna? Chopin, Scherzo No 1 in B Minor

Chopin’s four Scherzi are currently in my repertoire, each written at an interesting stage in the composer’s life. The genial fourth scherzo, Op 54,  was composed during a summer spent at Nohant with Aurore Dudevant, better known as the writer George Sand; the third scherzo, again with George Sand present, was composed during the winter months of 1838-1839 in a deserted monastery on the island of Majorca. The confident second scherzo, Op 31 , dates from 1837 in Paris before George Sand was a part of Chopin’s life, and likewise the first Scherzo Op 20 pre-dates their relationship. I love them all, and they are very satisfying to perform as a set, each one with its own character. But I’ll admit to a penchant for the first scherzo, as it was the first ‘big’ piece of Chopin which I learnt as a teenager. And also, its beginnings are shrouded in mystery, so I find it intriguing.

It was published in 1835 when Chopin was established in Paris, having arrived there in 1831. The dedicatee, Thomas Albrecht, was attaché to the Saxon diplomatic mission in Paris. But when and where was it composed? Like many early published works, it was written in advance of Chopin’s arrival and establishment as one of the French capital’s leading pianists. Publications followed Chopin’s success, in London, Paris and Leipzig, although interestingly Chopin’s Trio Op 9 was first published in London in 1830.

It has been suggested that the first scherzo might date from 1830-1831. November 2 1830 marks the date of Chopin’s departure from Warsaw – never to return. Later that month, the November Uprising erupted, an armed rebellion against Russian forces. Chopin learnt of this via letter; has friend Titus, who was travelling with him, turned back to Warsaw. Chopin travelled on alone, spending Christmas in Vienna, wandering around St Stephen’s Cathedral (below). One wonders if that influenced the choice of a Polish Christmas carol as the basis for the peaceful central section. The open of the Scherzo is shocking – literally – two unexpected loud chords, like an unprovoked slap in the face, before the RH hurriedly claws it’s way up the piano in a repeated frenzy, the LH trying to check and restrain its impetuosity. Interludes of a more rhetorical nature, full of questioning and despair, alternate with the headlong rush, until all is calmed by the central section. But those two chords break in again and the frenzy is resumed. A final coda builds to a shattering climax, with an agonised chord pounded repeatedly before a chromatic scale rips up the piano to the final, emphatic chords.

I’m in Warsaw as I write, soaking up Polish culture and immersing myself in Chopin’s life and times. More anon.


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On Wagner’s Birthday – Liebestod – from Tristan und Isolde – Wagner/Liszt

Following  April 23rd’s post, written on the joint birthdays of Prokofiev and Shakespeare, today’s post is written on Richard Wagner’s birthday, and the piece is the Liebestod from his opera Tristan und Isolde, transcribed for the piano by Liszt. A double dose of the Romantic piano, both in subject matter and musical style, as the grieving but rapturous Isolde dies by the body of her beloved Tristan at the conclusion of Wagner’s opera, in a blaze of chromatic harmony.

Liszt was an adept transcriber of other people’s music, including Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique  in 1833 after its premiere in Paris, all of Beethoven’s Symphonies, Schubert songs, Bach cantata movements, instrumental pieces and countless operatic themes. Operatic fantasies and paraphrases tended to include original material as well as the opera’s best-known  melodies, such as those found in the Rigoletto Paraphrase.But some transcriptions were almost verbatim adaptations for piano, and this is one of them.

Liszt was a skilled orchestrator and conductor himself, honing his skills while     Kappellmeister at the court of  Carl Friedrich, Grand Duke of Weimar, from 1848-1861. Not only that, but Liszt championed the music of Wagner, conducting numerous operatic performances; he knew Wagner’s style from the perspective of the composer’s orchestral soundworld.

In the Liebestod transcription, Liszt translates Wagner’s shimmering strings and Isolde’s aria into quiet tremolandi for piano accompanying the soprano’s line, which is projected with a cantabile, singing touch amidst a swirling texture of quasi-polyphonic complexity. There are important counter-melodies to project, and chords to be voiced judiciously. The music gradually builds in a series of ever-impassioned sequences until a shattering, ecstatic climax engulfs us all, both the performer and audience. As a solo pianist confined to ten fingers, one can almost feel Liszt’s frustration as he strives to get the maximum sound from the instrument, with pounded chords in both hands trying desperately to emulate the sound of a huge orchestra playing at full strength. Slowly and gradually the music subsides into blissful exaltation as Isolde slips away to join her lover in death.

Dare I point out, dear Liszt, that the final D sharp of the oboes in the penultimate bar really should be heard as a tie with all other instruments lifting briefly, as per the orchestral score? Try releasing all notes except a treble clef D sharp momentarily in between the final two bars, re-pedal, then play the last chord. Just a thought.

Two performances to enjoy – Horowitz, and then Hamelin, where the score can be followed.

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Prokofiev – Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet Op 75

The reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets over the dead bodies of Romeo and Juliet. Frederic Lord Leighton, 1855

We all know the story. We’ve seen the play, we’ve watched the film, we’ve studied it at school, we know the quotes … Shakespeare’s characters, Romeo and Juliet, the ‘star-cross’d lovers’, have provided musical inspiration for Berlioz’s symphonie dramatique  of the same name, Tchaikowsky’s Overture-Fantasy, and Gounod’s opera. Prokofiev composed music for a ballet, and three orchestral suites derived from it; pianists are fortunate indeed to have Prokofiev’s arrangement of ten transcribed movements to enjoy. Today, 23  April, is Prokofiev’s birthday, and Shakespeare’s, so let’s celebrate some of those pieces as part of our exploration of The Romantic Piano.

The chirpy, opening Folk Dance is unfailingly cheerful, with its compound time signature giving an attractive rhythmic buoyancy.

Perhaps the best known excerpt  in the UK, owing to its use as the theme for ‘The Apprentice’, is the Dance of the Knights. This is a swashbuckling piece, driven, full of energy, with a contrasting middle section which needs a well measured, calmer pace.

Here is Lugansky:

It’s worth listening to the original orchestration to absorb some of the feeling for orchestral colour which is transcribed to the piano.

The LSO with Gergiev:

Or if you prefer lush pianism, try the final movement, Romeo bids Juliet Farewell –

And on YouTube, enjoy the even lusher orchestral colours in the ballet from which it is derived, in the 1955 film of the ballet .

I rather like this black and white version, too – starting at :18 –

‘There are still so many beautiful things to be said in C Major,’  said Prokofiev. Here’s one of them.  If you like scintillating fingerwork with a tranquil heart, The Young Juliet has both:

Quirky, Prokofiev-style biting humour? Masks:

And there are five more pieces to explore, easily found on YouTube and on disc.  Just the thing for a joint birthday celebration. Enjoy!

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Liszt – A Tale of Two Women. Sonetto del Petrarca 104

 I have written elsewhere of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage, a set of three volumes plus a supplement, Venezia e Napoli , the composition of which spanned Liszt’s life from his twenties to his seventies, from youth to what used to be considered old age. And I have recorded the second volume. The music encompasses many places, literary works, art, sculpture, scenery, political statements, religion, and thoughts of death.

Inevitably, along the way, there was romance.

It is fascinating to see how Liszt reworked early pieces into their later forms. Liszt’s Tre Sonetti del Petrarca started life as songs. He received the inspiration for them from Petrarch’s Sonnets while travelling in Italy with Marie, Countess d’Agoult, (pictured above) in 1838-39.  They were reworked as piano solos, eventually appearing in the 1850s in the second volume of the AnnéesItalie; but by then Marie had been superceded in Liszt’s affections by Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein (left).



The best known of the Sonetti is number 104, Pace non Trovo. Liszt prints the original sonnet in Italian; he wants us to know the poem …


In English – ‘I find no peace, but for war am not inclined; I fear, yet hope; I burn, yet am turned to ice; I soar in the heavens, but lie upon the ground; I hold nothing, though I embrace the whole world. Love has me in a prison which he neither opens nor shuts fast; he neither claims me for his own nor loosens my halter; he neither slays nor unshackles me; he would not have me live, yet leaves me with my torment. Eyeless I gaze, and tongueless I cry out; I long to perish, yet plead for succour; I hate myself, but love another. I feed on grief, yet weeping, laugh; death and life alike repel me; and to this state I am come, my lady, because of you.’

Comparison  with the voice/piano version, which is almost operatic, is helpful: the voice has a recitative before settling into a quasi-aria, whereas the piano version, after an opening which sounds to me like someone rushing up the stairs, moves quickly to three statements of the theme; one with chords in the style of a recitative, one at a forte dynamic level – the RH in a higher range, the LH now flowing. The third statement is the grandest: fortissimo, the RH in octaves, the LH in interlocking patterns of chords, with explosive bass octaves.  There are mood swings in the piece similar to the contrasts in the poem, with moments of great tenderness and repose giving way to torment and anguish.

The final section is masterly, as we are told who has caused the tumult in the poet’s life: ‘my lady, because of you’. The piece ends quietly, still with a harmonic  frisson which reminds us of the poet’s angst, even in the penultimate chord.

Here is Nelson Freire:


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Robert Schumann – A Romance for Clara – Op 28 No 2

Married the day before her twenty-first birthday against her father’s wishes, Clara Wieck was a concert pianist, composer, editor, supporter of Brahms, promoter of her husband Robert Schumann’s music – oh, and mother of eight children, of whom one died in infancy.

To introduce the Schumanns and their family, below is Robert Schumann’s Schlummerlied, composed on Christmas day 1841; the Schumann’s daughter Marie [left, aged about 30] had been born that year. Some charming photographs of the children accompany the recording.

Two years earlier, in 1839 , Clara received Three Romances Op 28 from her fiancé  Robert as a Christmas present. Robert did not consider them to be ‘good or worthy enough’ to be dedicated to her. In protest, Clara wrote to him on 1st January 1840 ‘… as your bride, you must indeed dedicate something further to me, and I know of nothing more tender than these 3 Romances, in particular the middle one, which is the most beautiful love duet.” Despite her enthusiasm for them, Clara also suggested that he revisit them, and some revisions were made before publication in October 1840. The couple had married the previous month. Robert later considered the Romances to be included among his most successful works, particularly the ‘middle one’ – even so, he dedicated them to someone else.

Marked Einfach – simply, (although the autograph uses the word Andantino,) this serene second Romance is written on three staves, with the thumbs playing an inner duet surrounded by the gently undulating accompaniment in the radiant key of F sharp major.

In ternary form, the middle section is more troubled; the melody, now in a serious, minor key, moves to the outer RH fingers, and the LH plays concerned octaves in dialogue with the RH. A syncopated rhythm creates a hemiola effect as the music moves towards the dark regions of C sharp minor, the LH settling on the ocean bed of the piano’s lowest range. An anxious rising sequence and disturbed rhythm contribute to the tension, beautifully resolved by the LH eventually reaching for a low C sharp as the dominant of the home key, turning the music back towards tonal safety.

There is a further climax and a pause; richly embroidered counterpoint creates a glowing tapestry of great beauty, concluded by the comforting reassertion of the tonic key. The postlude repeats the dotted rhythm of the main melody quietly, again and again, as the music draws to a close, hovering, suspended in mid-air.

Here is Benno Moiseiwitsch in two recordings, twenty years apart:

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